The conspiracy-minded among us could be forgiven their suspicions when NASA announced evidence of liquid water on the surface of Mars just days before the opening of “The Martian.” In addition to being an old-school sci-fi thriller, Ridley Scott’s tale of a plucky astronaut stranded on the Red Planet also happens to be a big wet kiss aimed straight at the researchers and technological whiz kids at the federal space agency. After all, more than a few truthers insist the moon landing was dreamed up on a Hollywood soundstage. What’s a little marketing tie-in and victory lap between friends?
It turns out that “The Martian” doesn’t need extra help. What’s being marketed as a sober, straightforward sci-fi drama (the words “Bring him home” superimposed on an unsmiling Matt Damon inside a space helmet) is instead a smart, exhilarating, often disarmingly funny return to classic adventures of yore.
Imagine George Clooney’s wisecracking character from “Gravity” fetching up on Mars, only to be the subject of an “Apollo 13”-style rescue mission, and you get a sense of what part of fictional outer space “The Martian” occupies. Refreshingly irreverent but unapologetically worshipful when it comes to honoring real-life science, this bracing riff on exploration, gumption and ingenuity shows what Big Movies can do when they resist taking themselves too seriously. What could have been a disposable genre exercise or fashionably po-faced downer instead is a fun, rousing, thoroughly entertaining kick in the pants.
And Damon — recent real-life gaffes notwithstanding — is just the guy to deliver it. As Mark Watney, a botanist who gets separated from his space station team during an epic sandstorm, Damon embodies just the right measure of confidence and self-deprecatory vulnerability to make his character a slightly goofy Everyman — even as he’s expertly MacGyvering his way from one outlandish work-around to the next.
Once Watney discovers that he’s been left for dead, he doesn’t succumb to despair but flies into action, recording his plight on a video log that serves as audience surrogate. Helpfully explaining each problem, its life-and-death stakes, and how he will solve it, Watney then goes about the drudgery and hard work that defines day-to-day survival. Meanwhile, back on Earth, a NASA team composed of Kristen Wiig, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Jeff Daniels — at his deadpan best as the agency’s somewhat cynical director — scramble desperately to bring Watney home before his food, potable water and PR potential run out.
The fact that “The Martian” has been directed by Scott — the man who made the future look so un-bright in “Blade Runner” and “Alien” — comes as something of a shock, considering its sunnily wholesome tone. But the filmmaker brings his signature sense of detail, spectacle and startling beauty to a production that switches easily and evocatively from ochre and sienna sandscapes — suggestive of a grand, intergalactic Monument Valley — to techno-sleek command centers.
The telling difference in this production is the script, which has been adapted by Drew Goddard from a book by Andy Weir: While keeping several narrative balls in the air (have we gotten to the Earthbound space capsule commanded by Jessica Chastain? Or the young astrodynamics prodigy played by Donald Glover?), Goddard injects an impressive amount of sophisticated humor into otherwise dry recitals of factoids and “Hey, I’ve got an idea!” self-interruptions. Chief among its many strengths may be that “The Martian” is the only sci-fi action adventure in cinematic history to reference both the hexadecimal numeric system and the Algonquin Round Table.
Occasionally, those juxtapositions can be too ingratiating by half: The disco-infused soundtrack harks back a little too familiarly to “Guardians of the Galaxy,” and the film finally succumbs to bloat, both in running time and hokey emotionalism. Less forgivable is the addition of 3-D to a movie that benefits not a whit from that gratuitous gimmick. With a script like this one, and Damon bringing it to life so appealingly, “The Martian” has plenty of dimension without cash-grabby bells and whistles.
It’s tempting to call the values of initiative, enterprise and resourcefulness that “The Martian” extols purely American, but the movie celebrates pluralism as well — even if a plot point involving the Chinese space program may have more to do with the booster technology of that country’s funding sources and markets than with high-minded ideals.
Either way, at a time when a kid can get busted for bringing a DIY clock to school, presidential candidates seriously debate the value of vaccinations and even the Pope can’t win over global warming skeptics, the problem-solving valorized in “The Martian” provides a simultaneously stirring and spirited example of how cool science can be. As NASA-Hollywood plots go, this one is worth lapping up like all the water on Mars.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains strong profanity, injury images, and brief nudity. 141 minutes.